T.J. Leaf (USA Today)

UCLA's Weaknesses Exposed Against USD

Nov. 18 -- UCLA was out of sync in beating a very pedestrian but well-coached San Diego team Thursday, 88-68. The Toreros took away some of UCLA's strengths, and it exposed some of the Bruin weaknesses...

Despite it seeming like a typically innocuous win for a top-20 team over a non-conference patsy, with UCLA beating San Diego 88-68, there was actually a great deal you could take away from this game.

This UCLA team, while vastly talented, has some weaknesses.

And you really see the weaknesses when some of its strengths are taken away – namely two strengths: three-point shooting and transition scoring.

UCLA had its three-point shooting taken away mostly by its own accord – just not being able to shoot Thursday night. But San Diego smartly took away UCLA’s transition scoring, rotating back defensively and then stopping the ball on rebounds.  It also helped that UCLA didn’t rebound well, barely beating a team that doesn’t play anyone over 6-7 in the rebound department by just 43-38.

This reduced this game to the halfcourt, where UCLA’s halfcourt offense isn’t effective or resourceful enough in how it’s built to take advantage of a severely disadvantaged opponent.   And then, with San Diego not running at all itself, on the other end of the floor UCLA had to defend in the halfcourt on literally every possession, and that’s not its strong suit either.

San Diego coach Lamont Smith pretty much provided UCLA’s opponents a blueprint on how to play against the Bruins.  The long-time west coast assistant Smith is in his first head-coaching gig at San Diego, and it proves how there is some very good coaching being done out there in college basketball, by coaches who aren’t big names, toiling away at mid-major, struggling programs that don’t have the resources to win at a consistent level.

Of course, it’s unusual that UCLA will shoot 5 of 22 from three. If UCLA hits its threes, even the wide-open threes and not its usual number of forced ones, UCLA wins this by 30+ and no one even notices the Bruin weaknesses San Diego and Smith exposed.

So, let’s take the three-point shooting out of the analysis and look at the rest of the game. San Diego pretty much eliminated UCLA’s transition game, and did it fairly easily. Usually teams have to immediately rotate back four guys and concede that it’s never going to get an offensive rebound.  But San Diego, in probably what was the most surprising element of this game, didn’t do that entirely. It kept some guys on its offensive end to battle for offensive rebounds and weren’t just limited to one shot on its offensive possessions.  It had numbers on the offensive boards because UCLA leaks out three guys for a potential break so often.  There were long offensive rebounds that San Diego got because UCLA’s guards had already leaked out and weren’t boxing out for the rebound.  That extended so many of San Diego’s possessions, which contributed to transforming and manipulating UCLA’s offensive mindset to settling into a halfcourt game.  UCLA, by the end of the first half, had some opportunities to run, but it’s almost as if San Diego had hypnotized the Bruins into playing in the halfcourt.

So, on that blueprint, there’s definitely the directive to slow down the game, on both ends of the court.  Now, there will be opponents this season who just can’t play that style, especially those that feel they match up talent-wise with UCLA and like to get up and down the court themselves.  There are even less-talented teams that don’t tend to play that style and won’t even attempt it against UCLA because, well, it’s just not what they do.  So, UCLA might not actually run into this issue of playing against a slow-down team all that much.

Taking away UCLA’s transition game, though, is somewhat of an uncertain proposition game to game.  So much depends on rebounds and literally how the ball bounces, as it did in this game with a good number of long offensive rebounds going to San Diego.  So a team could attempt this similarly to what San Diego attempted, but it might not turn out the way it did for the Toreros.

But the weakness that every opponent can reliably expect to see from UCLA is a spotty defense.  San Diego, when it executed its offense well, which was about 75% of the time, and didn’t take any hasty shots, completely exploited UCLA’s defensive weaknesses.  There are plenty of them at this point, and they are weaknesses that have been inherent to Steve Alford’s teams, and it’s doubtful they’re going away anytime soon.

UCLA’s halfcourt defense, first, is really poor at its on-ball defense.  A great deal of the team is just not good at it, unable to stay in front of a man fundamentally, and also looking like they just don’t care enough to put in the effort to do it.  This game, too, showed how Bryce Alford is the primary culprit, and how teams are now attacking him specifically to exploit his defensive lapses.  Opponents so far this season have gone consistently right at him, and are using switches to try to get their better scorers matched up against Alford.  With the program repeating its mantra over and over about defense, this game made it clear that Alford hasn’t changed in his defensive approach or effort. In this game, we counted at least nine times that Alford’s on-ball defense was exploited by San Diego. It usually starts with a ball screen, and Alford’s lackluster effort to get around the screen and pick up his man when the UCLA big is plugging and delaying Alford’s man.  The effort he gave in this game to do that was abysmal.  On one possession, off a ball screen, both Alford and Thomas Welsh rotated to the same player – Welsh’s player – and Alford’s man scored.  There was one San Diego possession toward the end of the game when the Toreros used a creative way to exploit Alford’s defense, making him trail his man around a double screen on the elbow. When Alford’s man then slipped to the basket, Alford gave up, and allowed an easy lay-up.  There were other times when Alford’s man just easily took him off the dribble without a ball screen.   His close-outs on three-point shooters is half-hearted. On top of this, he must have instructions to leak out on opponent’s shots; on one USD possession in the second half he did it twice, allowing USD to get two long rebounds, extend the possession and eventually convert.

This isn’t randomly picking on Bryce Alford.  UCLA absolutely doesn’t play good defense as a team. But why this is so salient now is that opponents are clearly targeting Bryce Alford’s defensive weaknesses.  If this year’s Bruin team is going to win at a high level, coach Steve Alford is going to have to do something about Bryce Alford’s defense. It’s not just about living up to the commitment that Steve Alford emphasized before this season about a renewed commitment to defense.  It’s not just living up to that coach-speak. It’s literally now about combating the tactic opponents are going to use to beat you.  It’s like in Star Wars when the Empire just somehow didn’t recognize that all those Death Stars could be destroyed by shooting a torpedo through some random exhaust port.  So much of this team’s success this year is going to depend on doing something about Bryce Alford’s defense – whether it’s him picking up his defensive effort or somehow UCLA tactically masking his defenses successfully, or giving Aaron Holiday, who is an exceptional defender, more of Alford’s minutes.  You could easily make a case that there wouldn’t be an offensive drop-off with Holiday playing more minutes, since he’s percentage-wise a better three-point shooter than Bryce (and he was the only one who seemingly could make a three against San Diego, going 2 for 4, while the rest of the team shot 3 for 18 from three) and better driving to the basket.  Realistically, the decision won’t be made for Holiday to take some of Alford’s minutes, so then something else has to be done from the other two options for UCLA’s defense to have a chance to be effective enough this season.

UCLA relied on its halfcourt offense against San Diego, since the Toreros took away the transition game, and there were mixed results.  On one hand, UCLA did a good job of trying to exploit the advantage UCLA had inside, which resulted in freshman post T.J. Leaf being fed the ball consistently and finishing with a game high 26 points, with all of those points practically coming in the paint.  In an unprecedented stat, UCLA’s frontcourt of Leaf, Welsh and Gyorgy Goloman combined for 42 points – and that exceeded the starting backcourt of Alford, Isaac Hamilton and Lonzo Ball, who combined for 35 points. There were times UCLA floated away from its directive of getting the ball inside to exploit the mismatch, but it stayed on point for much of the second half, with both Leaf and Goloman benefitting from feeds for easy baskets.  So that was good – that UCLA actually executed an offensive game plan that took advantage of a mismatch. In recent years that wasn’t always the case.

But there has to be some worry about whether UCLA’s frontcourt has the physicality to be effective in the low block against teams that have guys over 6-7, weigh 230+ and are high-major talent. Welsh refuses to bull his way inside for a lay-up, content with face-up jumpers or 8-foot jump hooks. Leaf took the ball inside against USD, but we’re skeptical the freshman will have have the bulk or strength to do that against real post players.  The one physical hope is that Ike Anigbogu can provide some beef when he returns, probably by Pac-12 play, but there has to be some skepticism that the freshman will immediately start playing at a high level because, well, he is a freshman and will be coming off the injury. 

We’re going to conclude, then, that UCLA will struggle against any formidable frontlines, and opt for what it has in the past few years -- a perimeter-oriented offense that will live and die by the three-pointer.

We have to call out Welsh a bit here.  He’s a junior center, at 7-0 and 250 pounds.  He has to start asserting himself more physically.  You’d think that he would have developed this by this stage of his UCLA career, and been coached to be more physical by this point.

The best element of this year’s Bruins, what makes the games watchable, is the team’s collective ability to pass the ball.  It all starts with Lonzo Ball, the freshman point guard, whose instinct to look to pass is unusually exceptional, and has somewhat infected other players on the team. There were a few moments in the San Diego game when, with Ball as a catalyst, UCLA rotated the ball offensively until it found the best shot. Ball, too, has gotten off some nice passes this season, but as he gets more and more comfortable there are going to be some passes that qualify as spectacular.  Isaac Hamilton is a good passer, and when he’s trying to give it up, he can get off some beautiful drive-and-dishes, like he did against USD.  Alford, too, when he is looking to give up the ball, is a good passer. Holiday is still refining his passing ability, but he does have a good instinct to find a teammate.  Leaf, too, is an accomplished passer. This all makes for a handful of possessions in every game so far this season that are a treat to watch. 

With Ball establishing the passing culture, we’re hoping that means less bad shot selection and ill-advised three-point attempts out of the flow of the offense and drives-to-nowhere.

UCLA’s offense, with or without a transition game, will be adequate regardless, even if it doesn’t reach its stellar potential based on the Ball Passing Culture. 

But whether UCLA wins at a high level this year, it will be about defense. Up until this game, there was evidence that UCLA’s defensive approach hadn’t really changed, but this game against San Diego really exposed it. We’re not just calling it out; UCLA’s coaching staff and the players have said it and called it out themselves. We’ll see if that was just lip service. 


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